Rossana Jeran, CEO and co-founder of Hello Computer Inc. and StoryTime International.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
A spirit of innovation has pulsed through the desert communities since “Mother” Nellie Coffman arrived at the turn of the 20th century, opened The Desert Inn sanitarium turned luxury resort, and made pre-incorporated Palm Springs the go-to destination for relaxing in the sun.
Coffman’s vision and gracious hospitality drew a steady stream of visitors, and eventually, the “village” that is today’s downtown began to flourish.
The desert has since become a place where great ideas are born and often come to fruition. The most impressive feat of vision, engineering, and pure will might be the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tram, which carries visitors 8,600 feet up Mount San Jacinto. The iconic attraction made its first trip to the top 60 years ago this fall.
The modernist aesthetic that prevails in Palm Springs offers another example of novel ideas. The architects behind our undulating sea of cantilever rooflines, brise soleil walls, and clerestory windows came to the desert for the space and freedom to experiment with minimalism. Today, buyers, buffs, and looky-loos covet homes by Frey, Krisel, Wexler, and Williams, and the annual Modernism Week draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area for weeks at a time.
From the first golf cart (designed at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage) and the Studebaker Avanti (designed by Raymond Lowey in Palm Springs) to the scene-shifting Coachella music festival and Desert X art exhibition, great ideas seem to root and thrive at every level in the desert.
We’re seldom surprised when we meet visionaries realizing their dreams and adding to our region’s legacy of innovation. On the following pages, we introduce three entrepreneurs — Guy Assif of Moducan Corp., Rossana Jeran of Hello Computer Inc. and StoryTime International, and Karina Melgar of LEAPS Services — who are not only bringing their ideas to market and thriving in Greater Palm Springs.
Guy Assif, Founder and CEO Moducan Corp.
Guy Assif: Founder & CEO, Moducan Corp.
When he moved to Greater Palm Springs from Toronto in 2015, veteran and architect Guy Assif set out to create modular solutions for residential homes. Then COVID-19 revealed a higher purpose for his efficient architecture for use as temporary, potentially life-saving structures.
“FEMA and other [emergency response] organizations need to respond to natural disasters,” Assif explains, “and responding with tents and containers is very outdated. We’re creating a new, modular system that’s designed and engineered to quickly and easily deploy, transport, and build anywhere and withstand any weather conditions.”
Assif likens his modular approach to LEGOs. Each 10-by-10-by-10-foot temporary building is designed for quick installation with flexible configurations. Users can assemble the buildings in a number of layouts, allowing Moducan products to serve in a variety of emergency situations, including natural disasters, public health crises, and military deployments.
Assif is already working with national and international agencies to deploy Moducan technology around the world, but the desert remains his home base. “The Coachella Valley has turned out to be a supportive environment,” he says. “Not too many may see it as an obvious choice for a startup that is looking to reach out across the U.S. and beyond, but I believe that more and more people will soon be paying attention to our region’s potential.”
Guy Assif with a flexible configuration.
He credits the support of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership’s iHub business incubator, as well as the business community at large, for creating an environment where entrepreneurs are able to sharpen their business plans, develop proof of concept, and take their products to market.
In return, Assif — a citizen of Israel, Canada, and the European Union — plans to bring jobs and educational opportunities to Greater Palm Springs.
“It’s not only the jobs that will be created,” Assif says. “We’ll also create a new level of education for this type of construction, which has not been seen anywhere else.”
Rossana Jeran: CEO & Co-Founder, Hello Computer Inc. and StoryTime International
She’s working with organizations internationally to send the power of stories to children in places such as Nairobi and Ukraine. Jeran’s company is focused on making literacy accessible at scale through technology. Through a partnership with the World Literacy Foundation, the StoryTime International app is distributed to children around the world on solar-powered tablets. Their apps work without Wi-Fi and continuously generate new stories in English and the child’s native language.
Hello Computer is also exploring how to license its proprietary story engine to major education companies throughout the United States and is also delving into virtual reality–based video games.
Rossana Jeran plans on creating a Silicon Desert.
When she was ready to build the infrastructure for these startups, Jeran moved from Santa Monica to Greater Palm Springs. “I’m passionate about creating a Silicon Desert,” Jeran says, “where we can have a brick-and-mortar space to bring technology jobs to the desert, whether it’s young coders who need their first jobs or my chief technology officer.”
Jeran especially appreciates the local community support for business owners and entrepreneurs in Greater Palm Springs. Hello Computer joined CVEP’s iHub business incubator in December 2022 and has since received support in the form of business plan reviews, interns, and business networking.
“Their guidance has been incredible,” Jeran says. “They not only provide backend support, but also community support to get the word out. I’m so indebted to what they do.”
As for the Silicon Desert, Jeran wants to create jobs, industries, and infrastructure that lead to opportunities for workers and business owners. “The desert is all about tourism, which is a great thing,” Jeran says. “Now, let’s bring technology and innovation, which brings jobs and people to the area and ultimately lifts the entire desert, not just for the travel and tourism, but for the quality of life for everyone in the desert.”
Karina Melgar CEO and Founder Leaps Services.
karina melgar: ceo and Founder, leaps services
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, behavioral specialist Karina Melgar immediately saw a need for additional support in the neurodivergent community, particularly people living with autism. She started online enrichment classes that evolved into a comprehensive coaching program to help young adults live independently.
“Our mission is to empower neurodivergent individuals and help them realize their full potential,” Melgar says. Her company, LEAPS Services, has worked with about 50 families to provide support, coaching, and self-advocacy resources. Self-advocates receive resources and skill development, and LEAPS Services also help them create small businesses of their own. They have created 10 small businesses so far.
Melgar found a wealth of local support for her new business, including free Zoom meetings through the Coachella Valley Women’s Business Center, where, she says, “I actually met a business coach who held my hand and guided me through the business plan process.”
Melgar was also able to attend networking events that have allowed her to collaborate with other small businesses in the area.
Karina Meglar is a behavioral specialist.
LEAPS Services also receives support through CVEP’s business incubator, which provides the startup with office space. “What I envision for my business is a big space where we can have little shops or boutiques that our clients can take over and additional workspaces upstairs,” she says. “I could give back to the community by allowing our self-advocates to rent these spaces at a reasonable rate.”
Melgar envisions creating a space similar to Flannery Exchange, a mixed-use space in Uptown Palm Springs that offers coworking offices, meeting and event rooms, and retail spaces.
“Shared workspaces would give opportunities to up-and-coming small businesses in alignment with what we’re doing,” Melgar says. “I want our self-advocates to be at the forefront of this, showcasing everything they’re working hard toward, and I’ll be on the sidelines cheering them on.”